Ask The Coach – A Good B&W And The Basics Of Film Photography

When I take my photos, I always check out the way they would look in black and white too, some look better than others and some fail miserably. Are there any tricks to creating great black and white photos?

~Steven, SD

Tricks?  Tricks.  Tricks!


No. Tricks are what dogs are taught


No tricks, but again, it’s knowing the basics of photography that will allow you to create the most stunning black and white (B&W) images.  Shooting for black and white can also make you a better photographer. With no color to focus your attention on, you need to think more about light and shadow, composition, contrast, shape and texture – the essential elements of black and white photographs, mastery of which will also transform your color shots. And isn’t this what we all want as artists: to develop our senses to ‘see’ things differently than most people?

Is that why we should shoot for B&W? A resounding – Yes! But the way to shoot B&W is very different: it’s all about aesthetics. B&W photographs create a timeless, ‘classic’ look that simply isn’t possible with color. This is especially true with portraits and landscapes: take a moment to think about the amazing B&W portraits that have moved you over the years, or the haunting effect of a winter scene with all the color drained away. Wedding shots often look more romantic in B&W, too.

Photographic tips for shooting in black and white

1 First let’s start with something that seems obvious but is often overlooked: actual black and white.  You have to have things that are BLACK and things that are WHITE in your subject matter.  If you have a person sitting on a tan colored chair, wearing a tan colored shirt, with blonde hair – all that will do is show up gray when converting the image to B&W. Try and shoot images with lots of high contrast – sharply contrasting objects will look even better in black and white; muddy, ill-defined edges will look worse. Take a look at these high contrast images in the FYP article by Jaycee Crawford.

2 For all intents and purposes, black and white photographs lack color (they really don’t but that is an entirely different article). So instead they depend on a great deal of lines. And luckily, a line can be anything. Try to capture distinctive patterns, lines and shapes in architecture and natural objects as you compose the shot in the viewfinder or back screen – these become more accentuated without color. By removing color from the equation, the subtleties of the grains, holes, cracks and imperfections become what are most important in the shot.  This is why so many abstract shots are in black and white. You can see some examples here at another FYP article.  All would make stunning B&W images.

3 Texture is vitally important too – well-defined textures, be it a tire tread or an ancient tree’s bark, can look wonderful in black and white photographs.

4 Don’t be afraid to crop in close on portraits – faces tend to look smoother and more imposing in B&W, with blemishes and discoloration not as noticeable.

5 Don’t worry so much about dull, grey skies – washed-out, overexposed skies are not so noticeable in B&W, and you can easily darken them in post-production for extra atmosphere.

6 You also want to use a low ISO for black and white photography. Even for color photography, a low ISO produces the least amount of noise in a shot. Unfortunately in black and white, the smallest amount of noise shows up like a flashlight. So in this case, a low ISO is the only way to go.

Color photography becomes a way for us as artists to become lazy. With color, you can guide the eye around the frame. With black and white, you have to use highlights, line, structure and shadows to build a final product. The focus is no longer on the beautiful tones of red but on the architecture of the scene. Working with black and white photography will make you an infinitely better photographer. The eye becomes more trained to what is important. Eventually, color becomes the cherry on top of the sundae!

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Is there an article that covers the basics of film photography for someone used to DSLRs? I just got an old Minolta SLR and I feel like a fool!


HA!  Another timeless question!  We’ve grown so accustomed to having technology take the ‘hard part’ out of everything for us we don’t even remember the basics anymore.  We want that ‘easy’ button all the time and really; easy is not easy.  DSLR’s are so more complicated than they need to be (in my personal opinion) and sometimes I go get my film camera to remind me of how it really is done.


Since this question cannot possibly be answered in one short article, I decided to break this down into smaller chunks and hopefully put this into a size that’s easier to chew.

So  here we go – down to the basics (I say that a lot , don’t I?), WAIT!  Why do I say that a lot?  It’s because every question I receive usually has something to do with the very basic understanding of photography and composition.  It certainly has been lost with the onset of greater and more impressive technology.  The fact that a person can pick up a really nice camera for what is a reasonable price and then think that they know what they are doing behind the lens is an anomaly .  We are confused – “the technology should be doing this for me, shouldn’t it?”    And then when it doesn’t, we ask questions.  Well, hooray for you!  We should be asking questions every day about this medium of art because no one can ever know it all.

We cannot possibly know everything about photography – otherwise we wouldn’t have so many on-line magazines, forums and websites helping us along the way in our journey of learning the vast universe we call ~photography! Just like doctors or lawyers – there are specialists in many fields, having greater knowledge of one subject over another. There is sooo much to learn!

So let’s go back and start from the beginning. Let’s start out with the exposure triangle.

The “correct” exposure for a given scene is a function of at least 3 things:

shutter speed,




and film speed.


This is your triangle.  All three things effect each other and are whole goal is to create a perfectly exposed image.  Adjusting just one of these will make the photo darker or brighter and will change the appearance of the photo based on what you have changed. The technicalities of exposure are rather convoluted and a bit mathsy, however the end result is that exposure refers to how bright or dark your photo is due to the amount of light that is recorded by your cameras sensor. A properly exposed photo should (normally) resemble the brightness of the original scene. A poorly exposed photo will either be too dark or too bright and may contain areas that are so dark or bright that they contain no detail (known as blown out). Each factor is interchangeable in terms of exposure, so that a decrease or increase in one factor must be met by the same amount of change in another.

Metaphor time!


Think of getting your ideal digital camera exposure like getting the perfect tan. The sunbather wants to get just the right amount of sun to get great color, but not so much that he or she burns.

Some people tan really nice and fast, others not so much. Think of your skin type as the ISO rating. Olive skinned people have better receptors to sunlight than fair skinned people.

Your shutter speed is going to be the amount of time you spend out in the sun. The longer you spend out there, the better chances of getting enough sun and a tan. However, if you are out there too long, you are going to get burnt…or in the case of your photo, over exposed and blown out.

Aperture is the sunscreen that you decide to wear. Depending on its SPF, you are going to block the sun (light) at different rates. If you apply a really strong SPF, you decrease the amount of light that gets through to tan you. If you change your SPF (aperture), it changes how long you can be in the sun (shutter speed).

So if you’re fair skinned and burn easily and decide not to wear much sunscreen, you can only be in the sun for a little bit of time. In photography terms, this means if your aperture is wide open, you can only open the shutter for a tiny bit of time. However, if you’re wearing a strong sunscreen, you can stay out there longer because fewer rays will tan your skin. Meaning, if you make your aperture smaller, you can open your shutter for a longer amount of time, because less light gets through the opening. If you are olive skinned, you can stay out in the sunlight longer…even without sunscreen. So if you shoot at an ISO of 100, you can shoot a longer exposure…even with the aperture more open.



think of it like a bucket of water.  A full bucket is a perfectly exposed image.  If there isn’t enough water in the bucket, your image in underexposed, if there is too much water it’s overexposed. Achieving the correct exposure is a lot like collecting rain in a bucket. While the rate of rainfall is uncontrollable, three factors remain under your control: the bucket’s width (aperture), the duration you leave it in the rain (shutter speed), and the quantity of rain you want to collect (ISO or film speed). You just need to ensure you don’t collect too little (”underexposed”), but that you also don’t collect too much (”overexposed”). The key is that there are many different combinations of width, time and quantity that will achieve this. For example, for the same quantity of water, you can get away with less time in the rain if you pick a bucket that’s really wide. Alternatively, for the same duration left in the rain, a really narrow bucket can be used as long as you plan on getting by with less water.

Over the next few months we’ll go over the specifics of each aspects of the exposure triangle and explain in detail the effects each have on each other.

Come back and see me sometime!

Fire me some questions – I have a fire extinguisher. : )

Email me at [email protected]

Dawn Sanborn is a photographer, teacher, life coach, mom, horse lover, goatherd, entrepreneur and all around Renaissance woman. She’s got an obsession with food photos but splits her photographic passions into many categories. She lives on a farm in SE Minnesota with her extended family of humans and dozens of animals.


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